Issues in focus

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ALBUM Chair and Stephensons of Essex Managing Director Bill Hiron gave an opening address. JONATHAN WELCH

Jonathan Welch looks at some of the topics discussed at the 2023 ALBUM conference in Edinburgh

In last week’s issue, we looked at the suppliers and manufacturers present at the recent ALBUM conference, and heard their reasons for attending and their thoughts on the event, as well as about some of the myriad of products and services on show. This week, we turn to look at some of the topics discussed, which centred around three ‘p’s representing the changing face of the bus industry; policy, product and people, the latter encompassing both passengers and staff.

A warm welcome was given by the Managing Director of event host Lothian Buses, Sarah Boyd, and delegates were equally warmly welcomed by ALBUM chair Bill Hiron, Managing Director of Stephenson’s of Essex.

The industry is driven by the needs of its customers, and is looking to the future and new technology, said Sarah, but faces the reality of an ever-changing world in which operators have had to adapt to a new normal in which the bus must offer a viable alternative to car travel. Bill highlighted the importance of the conference in bringing together operators and suppliers, with over 300 people attending this year, around half of whom represented operators, the remainder suppliers and manufacturers. He spoke of revenue and cost challenges and the fast pace of change with which everyone in the industry will be familiar as he welcomed the conference’s first speaker, Transport for Scotland’s Director of Bus Accessibility and Active Travel Bettina Sizeland, standing in for Transport Minister Kevin Stewart MSP.



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Speaking on behalf of the Minister, Bettina said that he had been working to build his understanding of the bus industry. “There is no doubt that the pandemic has reshaped society,” she began. “The focus on people, product, policy and customer could not be more apt. Equality, opportunity and community will be central to this [Scottish] government, and these are all areas where bus has a key role to play.

“Bus is the most widely used form of public transport in Scotland and provides essential links. Bus services reach every part of society. Collaboration on a fair fare structure and concessions can help to reduce inequalities and tackle poverty. Joint action on reducing emissions can protect people from harm. A shared commitment to maintaining services or networks will help to create opportunities to contribute to a fair, green and growing economy.

“We are already working closely together in these areas, emergency funding totalled over £223m during the pandemic and helped to protect the sector. In the 2022-23 financial year, we spent over £440m to support bus services,” she said, the sum including concessionary travel and zero-emission funding as well as recovery funding.

The joint bus task force is taking action to address driver shortages, Bettina continued. “The second phase of our co-funded marketing campaign and bus operators will be launched to encourage people back to bus. Beyond addressing the more immediate challenges, the Minister has committed to a long-term sustainable future.” Policies and plans are continuing to be developed, she said, to ensure they deliver the change required, but it is important to highlight the work already going on to make sustainable travel more attractive; the Scottish Government set out a route-map to reduce car kilometres by 20% by 2030 in January.

Bettina Sizeland stood in for the Scottish Transport Minister at short notice. JONATHAN WELCH

“The introduction of zero-emission vehicles makes taking the bus an even more attractive option,” Bettina continued, adding that the work of the bus decarbonisation task force was already helping to decarbonise the bus sector. “We believe we can make a just transition and unlock opportunities across Scotland as part of our response to the global climate emergency. That’s why it’s fantastic to see operators participating in the low emission vehicle schemes.

“Whilst air polution in Scotland has reduced over previous years, we recognise that we must build on our achievements to date. Scotland’s first low emission zone was successfully launched at the end of 2018 with the support of Scotland’s bus and coach industry. Since then, the Scottish Government has awarded £21m to enable operators to upgrade over 1,200 vehicles to Euro VI standard.”

Turning to fares, Bettina reminded listeners that the Scottish Government is progressing with its ‘fair fares’ review which it says will make the transport system more accessible and affordable. She also acknowledged the importance of improving reliability and journey times as factors in encouraging motorists out of their cars. “Those shorter journey times will also allow operators to improve operating efficiencies. That’s why we’re investing in bus priority infrastructure. Working together, we will maximise the benefit of the Scottish Government investment. Those priorities are underpinned by the bus provisions in the Transport Act 2019, which empower local transport authorities to respond to their own transport challenges.”

Further legislation will be introduced in the Scottish Parliament to enable bus franchising, she said. “It’s important that the provisions of the act are fully exploited to ensure a competitive bus market with sustainable collaborative working between local authorities and operators.”

Work is also ongoing to make using public transport easier, she emphasised, by means such as improved access to information and smart ticketing. Around 98% of buses in Scotland now accept contactless payment, she added, thanks to support from the Scottish Government. Increased access to information and data are also priorities she said, to help the industry move forward and take best advantage of the available technology.

Under 22s

The under-22s free travel scheme has also been a success for families, with over 56 million free journeys made under the scheme since its launch last year, something which Bettina thanked operators for their contribution to, though there has been some suggestion of increased anti-social behaviour by young people on board buses in the same period. “The policy is helping young people and families with children to cut costs every day whilst at the same time protecting our climate,” she said. “To have seen such a high volume of journeys made through the scheme in its first year demonstrates the appetite for sustainable travel.”

The bus industry’s co-operation is critical for the Scottish Government to achieve its missions of equality, opportunity and community, she said.

There followed an interesting and thought-provoking panel discussion building on the topic; there was general agreement that more must be done on all sides, but operators and stakeholders also raised the point that genuine co-operation is needed and that timescales and targets must be achievable and viable. More co-ordinated funding streams, and a need to simplify the system towards arriving at a decarbonised, more efficient industry were identified as being needed, not only to make that system work better, but to ensure that public money is best spent.

Accessibility in all its forms was a key topic. JONATHAN WELCH

Another issue raised in the discussion, which included CPT Scotland’s Paul White as well as representatives of Edinburgh’s City Council and Chamber of Commerce, was how to ensure that the public fully appreciates bus services and their value, rather than take them for granted until they are under threat; an oft-repeated scenario that most, if not all operators will be familiar with and which presents an on-going challenge, especially as we draw further and further away from praising bus drivers as key workers and their role once again becomes an overlooked part of the fabric of the cities, towns and villages they serve.

Among the questions received from the audience was whether, given increasing cost pressures in Government and the industry, the free concessionary fares scheme for elderly and disabled passengers should be reviewed, and whether a minimum charge might free up large amounts of funding; whatever the desire, the political angle would seem to stymie any such proposal in real terms, though.

Where a difference could be made, however, is to ensure that operators are included in consultation processes from the start, it was felt, rather than being asked for feedback once the proposal is almost complete; this would prevent the situation where operators have limited scope to influence or propose improvements to plans, and enable public money to be better spent in a way which allows the industry to maximise its benefit.

Interestingly, although it might not be perceived as such, Bettina concluded by noting that it is often easier to achieve outcomes in rail or ferry operations than bus, since the Government either owns or has a direct controlling stake in their operation. “When it comes to bus, it’s messy. We don’t own the buses, it’s much more complicated to get things to work and it does need a lot more meaningful collaboration. And if it’s meaningful, it takes time. You have to start early.” When political considerations are layered on top, other modes which can achieve the outcome of a project within the term of one parliament can be seen as better vote-winners, she pointed out. On the other side of the coin, she added that much more of the correspondence she receives concerns buses than rail or ferry, highlighting the fact that it is something people do care deeply about.

People: passengers

Two key areas fall under the heading of ‘people,’ those who work in the industry, and those who rely on it. The first speaker to deal with the topic was Claire Walters of Bus Users UK, who spoke in some detail about planned forthcoming changes to accessibility legislation, specifically around information provision and ease of use, such as the requirements for visual displays visible from a wheelchair space on board a vehicle, as well as the need for those to be fit for purpose. Clear, suitably-sized fonts and good contrasting colours form the basis, she explained, most of which should already be obvious to operators. A reminder too that audio and visual information should be consistent; a recent case considered by the Traffic Commissioners revolving around the provision of BODS data should serve to highlight to operators that such things as passenger information are not niceties but are something which the modern, customer-focused industry should, and must, embrace.

A question from the audience addressed the issue of technical, operational and financial challenges faced by operators, especially smaller ones, when it comes to compliance with such policies, whilst a worry was expressed that too much of policy is based on what happens in London, but the realities outside the capital are somewhat different when it comes to financing.

Another issue raised, and one very easily overlooked, was the provision of hearing induction loops on board buses, which the audience was told can actually do more harm than good as most of those available are unsuitable for application on board a bus, resulting in uncomfortable interference for hearing aid users.

Bus Users UK’s Claire Walters spoke with enthusiasm about issues relating to accessibility and upcoming new legislation. JONATHAN WELCH

‘Accessibility pound’

Joining Claire in a panel discussion were Olivia Sklenar of Lothian Buses and Victoria Garcia MBE of Brighton & Hove, who has devoted much of time and effort to improving accessibility. Victoria noted that one in five people is disabled, and that not only is it the morally right thing to do to make transport accessible, but also commercially sensible, as it opens up the bus as a travel option to a large part of the population beyond those with easily visible disabilities. The ‘purple pound,’ the spending power of disabled people, could be worth millions of pounds per month to the transport industry, she said. “But it’s not just about the purple pound,” she added, “it’s about the accessibility pound, the spending power of every person. Every one of us will have an accessibility requirement at some time in our lives. That could be a short term requirement or a long term requirement.”

She cited as an example that someone who breaks their wrist might find it difficult to do something that might be considered relatively simple such as place a card on the ticket machine if it hasn’t been situated to be easily accessible. Engendering confidence is key, added Claire, citing work done by Mason’s Coaches around mental health and its effects and reminding listeners that not all disabilities are visible, an important point to remember when addressing the issue.

It was recognised too that the demands of space aboard will always cause conflict; Lothian has chosen to provide two wheelchair spaces, which the company feels goes beyond the statutory minimum in a positive way, but at the same time it is aware that the extra wheelchair or multi-use space reduces the number of seats available. In a fleet with a high proportion of long-wheelbase double-deckers, the impact is minimised but it’s not hard to see that this approach might not work elsewhere.

Lighting was another topic of discussion, and another on which it is hard to draw a correct conclusion. With minimal provision in standards, operators are to some extent left to their own devices, and a decision has to be made whether to prioritise bright lighting for those with visual impairments versus the dimmer illumination preferred by those who are sensitive to bright light.

It is not, of course, a question to which there can be a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer, but operators can choose to be more proactive in engaging with focus groups to help guide decisions. Engaging was a word which cropped up again and again during the discussion; being insular, whether it’s about decarbonisation, training, accessibility or ticketing, is no longer an option for bus companies in the 21st century.

Nor was the conference insular in its outlook; an interesting closing address to the segment gave delegates the chance to hear from Gordon Dewar of Edinburgh Airport, who spoke of the ways in which the airport has made itself more customer focused and in doing so helped drive significant growth despite being, in essence, a place people pass through to go elsewhere, not dissimilar to a bus. The parallels, and potential lessons which can be learned from elsewhere, provided some interesting food for thought.

The industry’s green credentials, as emphasised by the interior of the Alexander Dennis Enviro400FCEV on display with grass-effect floor and clouds on the ceiling, along with the growth of the importance of tech and data, should act as a draw to a wider section of the population when it comes to recruitment. JONATHAN WELCH

People: the professionals

The other side of the ‘people’ coin is that of staff; recruitment, retention, training, they have all been at the forefront of the industry’s mind in recent years as it recovers from the post-pandemic, post-Brexit driver shortage. Day two of the conference started with an address by Sonya Byers, representing non-profit organisation Women in Transport, which has over 1,300 members in the transport sector. Sonya highlighted the impact of the gender gap in all aspects of life, and that transport remains less diverse than it could be, meaning it is potentially missing out on a large part of the population when it comes to staff and recruitment. “Companies that are more diverse and representative perform better,” she said.

Looking at figures, she acknowledged that there has been an increase in the number of women drivers, but only a small one, with 88% of drivers still male. “The pace of change is slow. It’s an ageing workforce as well,” she added. Referring to a recent survey, she noted a ‘clear disparity’ in the way men and women perceive working in transport. A generally more negative impression among women already employed in the sector means that women won’t recommend it to other women, she warned, though added that there are ‘loads of companies doing amazing work’ in addressing the issue. A more holistic approach is needed, she said, with more measures in place to help promote the role of women and mentor those who chose to join the industry.

Moving away from driving roles, Sonya pointed out that at the current rate of change, “it’s going to take 100 years for there to be the same number of women working in engineering as there are men.” And whilst the picture might seem negative overall, she urged companies which are doing good things around improving diversity and inclusion to shout about it, to encourage others to follow. “If you’ve done something that hasn’t worked so well, share that too,” she said, “as it’s important to know what hasn’t worked and not just what has.”

HR perspective

More thought-provoking comment on the issue of human resources was delivered by Sandy Begbie CBE, CEO of Scottish Financial Enterprise, recently referred to by HR Magazine as ‘the most influential HR practitioner in the UK,’ and who again emphasised the importance of looking outwith the immediate environs of the bus sector when it comes to best practice and cross-fertilisation of good ideas.

Sandy acknowledged the role of the bus sector in tackling climate change. “This industry is vital,” he said. “for the future of cities. There’s a huge investment going into the industry, thinking about the technology, the customer experience, and data which plays a big part. For me, it’s quite an exciting business to think about.

“The best organisations I see have three things that are really important,” he explained. “Clarity of purpose, clarity of strategy, and what it stands for, its values. But then they also become really committed to their people, so that the people understand the purpose, the strategies and the values.”

Recognising the impact of the last few years, he said that lots has changed but the core of getting a few things right remains the same for businesses; recruitment, onboarding, development and training. Getting those right is important, he said, as is speaking to those who leave an organisation for whatever reason.

There was much audience engagement and participation in the panel discussions. JONATHAN WELCH

Looking more specifically at recruitment, he pointed out that young people’s view of the world is very different now. “How do young people view your industry,” he asked, extending that question to other groups such as those with disabilities or women, as Sonya had spoken about, “and what can we do to change that?”

Access to skills and recruitment challenges are present in every industry, Sandy said. “Everyone’s facing the same challenges. How do you sell the industry and sell the opportunities,” he asked, referring back to the points made by earlier speakers about the role buses have in tackling climate change as one key draw. Comparing with his experience in the finance sector, he said that people perceive it as being about banking, when in reality it’s become a very tech-orientated sector; the same could be said of bus or coach travel, which increasingly relies on tech for both passenger interface and operational necessity.

How the industry is presented is important, he explained, in addressing staffing issues. He noted that in finance, the number of people who said they would consider it as a career was significantly higher amongst those who already knew someone in the sector than those who were strangers to it; a reminder of the importance of maintaining good staff morale and relations as a pathway to recruitment.

Once on board, making people feel welcome is equally important, he stressed, not just as a HR matter but as good business sense. “Recruitment is a costly business. Turnover is a costly business. It’s a cost to the business.” Engaging people and engendering an atmosphere where people are trusted to perform is necessary, he said, as well as developing and training staff to help them perform well. “Invest in people and you’ll see the reduction in turnover coming through.”

Moving on to another panel discussion, many further interesting points were raised, one of which stood out as a very basic and potentially easily addressed problem; driver behaviour during change-overs or when waiting to take over a bus. The image created by drivers moaning and complaining about the job in front of passengers – potential employees – can do significant harm when it comes to recruitment and harm the positive messaging undertaken via publicity or social media promotion; the image needs to live up to the promises, it was agreed.

Summing up, the question was posed: ‘If someone were to ask why they should come and work for you, what would the answer be?’ – something that all operators can ask themselves, and use as a basis for soul-searching and improvement.

More to discuss

The third cornerstone of the conference, and the third ‘p,’ was ‘product,’ encompassing both the product offered by the bus industry to its customers, and the products which the industry relies on; Volvo’s Marie Carlsson spoke fervently about the manufacturer’s drive to reduce its environmental impact and the marque’s ongoing deep-rooted passion for safety at every level, something which will be only too familiar to CBW readers already, whilst EO Charging’s Charlie Jardine gave an in-depth look at the infrastructure and the questions, the challenges and the solutions facing operators; more on this topic in a future issue of CBW.

The conference drew to a close with an amusing and entertaining talk by Ian Longworth, the former Director of Transport Services at the Isle of Man Government, which drew together the strands of discussion in a light-hearted and memorable way. Listening to feedback and comments from attendees suggested that the event, carefully orchestrated by Lothian Buses, was viewed as a success by all those who attended, with valuable insights and interesting discussions all round. CBW looks forward to next year’s event, which will move to the north west of England, where it will be hosted by Warrington’s Own Buses.

See our YouTube channel for footage of five of the zero-emission buses which were on display outside the conference.